Happy 4th of July. Tonight, we’ll sit outside and watch the fireworks from our backyard. Our dogs will likely be close by; not terribly frightened, but a bit upset by the explosions. We’ll keep an eye on them-watching for signs of fear. Dogs often react strongly to the noise of fireworks. There have been frequent reports of dogs running away, digging out of yards, and even jumping through glass windows in response to fireworks.

If your dog (or cat) becomes frightened, what should you do; how should you respond? Well, try acting happy or for that matter, even bored or disinterested. Do not reassure or attempt to calm down your frightened animal. Why? Because if you give positive attention to your animal’s fear, then you are in effect saying, “Rover (or Spot), you’re absolutely right. Something is terribly wrong. Those noises are awful and you should be scared. I’m here to help you through it.”

And when you do that, your dog’s fear will likely increase. As the fears heighten, your dog will run to you for even more reassurance. And a vicious cycle begins. Alternatively, when you act either happy or disinterested; your dog receives a signal that conveys no concerns with what’s going on. You, the leader of the pack, are not worried. Thus, your dog becomes less anxious.

As with most good dog training principles, this one applies to people too. When someone you care about is frightened, it seems natural to offer reassurance. You want to be sympathetic and show that you understand. But, doing that grows and nourishes fear. Instead of helping, reassurance deepens anxiety.

Now, with people and kids who are anxious you don’t want to seem detached either. You can avoid that problem by carefully explaining that you are not going to give reassurance because it just makes things worse. In our book, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies we suggest some phrases that you can tell your kids if they seek unproductive reassurance. Some of these include:

  • You know I can’t answer that question.
  • I understand you’re worried, but we agreed that I wouldn’t reassure you.
  • There’s always a chance something bad could happen.
  • I wish I could tell the future.

Again, you need to explain that you’ll be saying these things and why. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with dogs. But your calm demeanor can help nonetheless. So, during this weekend of fireworks, don’t worry. Be happy.